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Using Old Numbers, Forecasts Offer Wrong Predictions for Arab Growth

May 5, 2006
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“Arab demographic momentum” has become part of the Israeli lexicon. Under this theory, the Arab sector, with its rapid population growth, will soon overwhelm the Jewish population, as “baby boom” generations of Arabs give birth to an even greater number of children. Arab births will accelerate even if birth rates remain stable or drop slightly because such a large number of women will enter their childbearing years.

But the evidence is now in, and it shows something surprising: Demographic momentum indeed exists — but among Jews, not Arabs.

Jewish births grew rapidly, from 80,000 per year in 1995 to 96,000 in 2000 and to more than 103,000 in 2003. The demographic outlook for Jews has been improving because the Jews’ total fertility rate, or the number of children a woman is likely to bear over her lifetime, has been rising.

In 2005, the Jewish fertility rate reached 2.7, the highest of any advanced industrial nation. While the fervently Orthodox contributed to this rise, secular Israelis and immigrants from the former Soviet Union also experienced increasing fertility.

When returning Israelis who have lived abroad — an average of 20,000 per year from 2001 to 2004 — and aliyah are added to the mix, the demographic weight of the Jewish sector grows even further.

In contrast, the absolute number of births in the Israeli Arab sector grew from 36,500 in 1995 to 40,800 in 2000. After rising slightly to a record 41,400 births in 2003, the number of Israeli Arab births fell in 2004 for the first time, back to 40,800.

The overall Israeli Arab fertility figure — which includes Muslim and Christian Arabs and Druse — declined from 4.4 in 2000 to 4.0 in 2004.

Israel recently enacted policies that are impacting the highest fertility sectors of the Arab population. In 2004, the government stopped granting stipends for every child born to a family, restricting them to the first two children. There was an immediate drop in Bedouin pregnancies.

The problem with demographic predictions is that they apply yesterday’s or today’s fertility rates to tomorrow’s forecast. However, earlier childbearing patterns may have little relationship to the number of children the next generation will have.

Applying Muslim fertility rates from the 1960s — nine to 10 births per woman — Israeli demographers had projected that Israeli Arabs would overtake Israeli Jews by 1990.

When the fertility rate dropped to 5.4 in the early 1980s and 4.7 in the second half of the decade, demographers applied this rate to their next series of forecasts. However, by 2005, the Arab fertility rate had dropped even further, echoing dramatic drops reported throughout the Middle East, where most nations display fertility levels of about three births per woman.

Furthermore, Israeli Arab women now in their 20s won’t necessarily repeat the childbearing characteristics of their older counterparts. Israeli Arab women who are having fewer children in their late teens and 20s might also have fewer children in their 30s than do today’s 30-year-olds, who still display the fertility characteristics of earlier generations.

In contrast, Israeli Jewish women in their 20s who are having more kids might carry that choice into their 30s at rates above those of current 30-year-olds.

The practice of forecasting tomorrow’s population growth from yesterday’s rates is a common mistake. The United Nations’ Population Division predicted in 2000 that the world’s population would balloon to 12 billion people by 2050. Four years later they dramatically revised the forecast, and now predict that today’s global population of 6.3 billion will plateau at 9 billion by 2050.

With constantly changing birth patterns, what’s a forecaster to do? To have any relevance, a forecast must constantly be updated with the most current information and to reflect any changes in trend. The Gallup organization recently published the results of a survey that showed a convergence in desired family size among Jews and Arabs west of the Jordan River.

The ideal family size has fallen to 5.1 for Arabs in Gaza and 4.5 in the West Bank. The desired family size among both Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs is now 3.7.

While Gallup found no difference in the preferred number of children among younger Israelis, younger West Bankers, 15 to 19, believe an ideal family should have 4.1 children, compared to relatives over 50 years old, who believe the ideal family should have 5.0 children.

The convergence in desired birth activity among Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs, and particularly among younger West Bankers, is likely to further impact the future demographic outlook for Israel and the West Bank, where Jews now form a two-thirds majority.

Demographers who concentrated on past patterns in the Arab population missed the evidence of a slowdown in the Arab sector and the demographic revolution occurring among Jews. By focusing on the past, forecasters anticipated demographic momentum in the wrong sector and produced an outlook that couldn’t even get the present correct, let alone the future.

Bennett Zimmerman, Roberta Seid and Michael L. Wise are authors of “Arab Population in the West Bank and Gaza: The Million Person Gap,” recently published by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies in Israel. “Forecast for Israel and West Bank 2025” debuted at the Herzliya Policy Conference in Israel and at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. The studies can be found at

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